Superior skills sail Kiwis ahead of the big guys

Ticker-tape parades and street celebrations mark New Zealand's successful defense of the yachting world's most vaunted prize.

Since Team New Zealand successfully defended the oldest continuously contested trophy in sports Thursday, their 3.8 million countrymen and women have been proudly celebrating the America's Cup win as a national achievement.

"The place has gone nuts," says John Davies, a local sports promoter and athletics coach.

Much of this week has been turned over to triumphant street celebrations and ticker-tape parades. In Auckland, the largest city, an estimated quarter million fans turned out Saturday to shower ticker tape on their country's sporting heroes. A similar outpouring is scheduled here today in the capital, Wellington, following a parliamentary reception for the victors hosted by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Ms. Clark has made much of what she sees as the nationalistic dimension of the win. In addition to New Zealand whitewashing its international competition on the waves, Clark says, the victory demonstrates a "remarkable" ability to meet head-on the technological challenge of larger nations such as the US, Japan, France, and Italy.

When the black-hulled Team New Zealand boat clinched a 5-0 knockout of Italian challenger Luna Rossa, it generated the feeling of a near rerun of their initial America's Cup victory in San Diego five years ago. Kiwi sailors trounced the rival Stars and Stripes syndicate by a historically wide margin.

Technical superiority of the craft as well as the team's tactical skills were again credited for the win.

Unlike the US, yachting Down Under has not until recently figured as a pursuit exclusively enjoyed by the members of wealthy racing syndicates.

Team New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts is a case in point: The youngest son of a working-class suburban family, his earliest years in the water were in a humble P-class dinghy built for him by his father, a building supervisor.

In season and out, some 32,000 registered members from 124 yachting clubs, along with unknown numbers of unregistered users, take to the same choppy waters for pleasure, adventure, and what is, by local mythology, something akin to a rite of cultural passage.

"This is a country that's been colonized, if I can put it that way, by people coming from around the world and arriving by water - whether they be Polynesian or European," notes Mr. Davies.

For Davies, the accident of history cuts two ways. "It means that a majority of people here have the sea in their background. And it means the same people have certain personal qualities from this background - I mean, a desire to succeed at new things, a determination to beat the natural odds - which make sports in general, and yachting in particular, a natural challenge."

In the view of Pete Mazany, a business lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand stands at a "critical juncture" in the development of its national identity and confidence, a point reinforced by its yachting conquests. "We have long struggled with the fact that we are small and far away from the rest of the world, and are finally starting to realize that small is beautiful, that small can be quick, smart, and strong."

Although the country's land mass looks modest enough - roughly the same size as the state of Colorado - the bulk of it is thinly spread, giving New Zealand 11,800 miles of coastline, nearly as much as that of the contiguous US.

Sailing tradition was changed forever in 1988, when local businessman Michael Fay invested millions of sponsorship dollars - perhaps as much as US $50 million, by industry estimates - into launching this country's first America's Cup challenge, in Fremantle, Australia, opening up commercial possibilities of the sport.

"That was definitely the turning point," says Peter Lester, a manager at Yachting New Zealand, the national yachting body. "Sure, New Zealanders have always been good sailors, but also a little bit unruly as well - the kinds of sportsmen who would sail their boats on the harbor and then head off for ... the pub with their mates. Although Fremantle didn't give us a win on the water, it changed the sport for the better by making participants more technologically savvy and internationally aware."

Mr. Lester, a longtime "yachtie" himself, describes the process as having been a "win for professionalism" in New Zealand.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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